The bulk of the debate and commentary on Brexit has focused broadly on matters such as trade and migration. Very little has so far been said about the way Brexit matters from gender and queer perspectives, write Moira Dustin, Nuno Ferreira and Susan Millns (University of Sussex). In this extract from their edited collection of essays, Gender and Queer Perspectives on Brexit, they predict that it will narrow the scope of policy debate around these issues, and put particularly disadvantaged groups – ‘minorities within minorities’ – at special risk.
The breakdown of voting in the referendum shows that, overall, men and women do have different views of Brexit (as do different generations). Furthermore, in the political sphere, and in terms of party politics, Brexit has seen opportunities created for female politicians and has paved the way for Britain’s second female prime minister. Additionally, Brexit impacts upon a myriad of policy areas that are highly important to women and gender and sexual minorities – employment law, discrimination law, single market, free movement, migration, citizenship rights, to name but a few.
Our starting point for this collection was not any judgment on the desirability of the UK leaving the EU. Yet it is fair to say that none of the contributors is looking forward with enthusiasm to a post-Brexit world in which these groups have greater rights and freedoms, and where they are freed from the constraints of bureaucrats in Brussels. Rather, our writers express a range of views. Aisha Gill and Nazneen Ahmed bring to life the sense of shock felt by many women on hearing the referendum result. A number of contributors find cause for pessimism in the likelihood that leaving the EU will aggravate existing social or legal problems.
Nor is it the case that the UK was ever fully ‘in’ in the first place. To take the example of asylum, as Ingi Iusman points out, the UK opted out of the Family Reunification Directive and only signed up to the 2004 incarnation of the EU Qualification Directive, so is not signed up to the 2011 recast Directive with its extended recognition of both sexual orientation and gender identity. Additionally, as Christel Querton argues, opting into the 2004 Directive did not lead to a more inclusive and gender-sensitive approach to asylum. Thus, the ‘risks’ are less concrete and it is rather the case that UK citizens and residents will not benefit from what are currently unknown future enhanced rights and protections.
Nevertheless, there is also a strong sense of resistance and positivity about the potential for addressing some of these risks if only they are identified and publicly recognised. Solanke, for example, suggests an approach for ensuring that non-discrimination principles and policies apply equally to all children, whether or not they are migrants and regardless of their parents’ nationality. Equally, Iusman argues that the UK could adopt the measures in the reformed Common European Asylum System to act in ‘the best interests of the child’. Mary-Ann Stephenson and Marzia Fontana highlight the specific recommendations of the Women’s Budget Group for avoiding regression in economic areas affecting women.
Are women and sexual and gender minorities likely to be more disadvantaged than other citizens and residents in the UK? One of the arguments in the taking-back-control camp is that the EU is heavily bureaucratic and imposes a high regulatory burden on its member states. The argument of many Remainers is that EU bureaucracy is very necessary protection for marginalised and disadvantaged individuals – including, disproportionately, women and sexual and gender minorities. So far, the UK government has not suggested that it will use exiting the EU as an opportunity for a regression on rights, whether or not they derive from Brussels.
Perhaps what these contributions show most strongly is that there is no value in talking about women or sexual or gender minorities as homogenous groups. Aside from gender and sexuality identifiers, individuals need to be seen as workers, consumers, public service users, carers, people seeking asylum, people from minority ethnic communities, people with disabilities, young people. The part of the UK they come from makes a difference.
To take one example, Dieuwertje Dyi Huijg highlights the importance of considering the impact of leaving the EU for disabled EU citizens and carers – the majority of whom are likely to be women but who are disadvantaged in different ways, because of who they are and what they do. Yet, as she convincingly explains, no one is inherently vulnerable. Rather, disabled people are ‘vulnerabilised’ by the state. The concept of being made vulnerable – and perhaps more vulnerable – by the fallout of leaving the EU may usefully be applied beyond disability to people historically marginalised because of ethnicity, nationality, religion or age, as well as gender and sexuality.
We are unlikely to see a bonfire of gender and LGBTQI+ equality protections. Yet, as Eugenia Caracciolo di Torella points out in relation to promoting a work-life balance, it is not ‘just’ about legislation. It is also about principles, values, discourse and the parameters of possibility. This is where the Overton window is a useful descriptor. As Amy Barrow suggests, while leaving the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy may not be as complex as withdrawal from other areas of EU policy, it may mean that momentum on mainstreaming gender in peace and security is lost and there is a return to the traditional assumption that gender is irrelevant to security matters. Combine this with the recognition that the Brexit debate in the UK has been dominated by militaristic language and metaphors from the world of business, and we see a narrow window of policy debate focused on winners and losers. Thus, we suggest that the Overton window is likely to shrink after Brexit.
Our conclusion is that the immediate threat is not to the broad categories of ‘gay’ or ‘female’ UK citizens or residents, but rather to those sometimes termed ‘minorities within minorities’ – BME families, disabled women, unaccompanied asylum-seeking boys, women living in the border regions of Northern Ireland. We hope that highlighting such threats will be the first step in addressing them.
This post is an edited extract from Gender and Queer Perspectives on Brexit, edited by Moira Dustin, Nuno Ferreira and Susan Millns (Palgrave Macmillan). It represents the views of the authors and not those of LSE.
Moira Dustin is a Research Fellow at the Sussex European Institute, University of Sussex.
Nuno Ferreira is a Professor of Law at the Sussex European Institute, University of Sussex.
Susan Millns is a Professor of Law at the Sussex European Institute, University of Sussex.